Friends First

Shouldn’t We Love Our Neighbors Even if They Never Come to Christ?

Through the Church Evangelism Institute, the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College hosts cohorts of senior pastors across North America who are committed to growing both their personal and congregational evangelism and outreach passion. Gerald L. Stigall, pastor of Grace Evangelical Free Church in Fridley, Minnesota, shares a recent lesson he learned about being a good neighbor.

Have you ever felt hoodwinked by a neighbor who you thought was befriending you only to discover that the overriding motive was to sell you something—encyclopedias, clothing, food containers or perhaps even insurance? In these situations, choosing not to purchase the product often leaves us with the sense that the relationship we were hoping to forge suffered a hit.

In recent months, our church has focused on what it means to become good neighbors for the glory of God. We have begun wondering what our neighbors might feel if they sense we are approaching them as salespeople—not hawking cosmetics or candles, but instead selling the latest Bible study, film series or big event that our church is hosting.

What if our neighbors view Christians only as retailers looking to make the next sale?

In The Art of Neighboring, authors Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon observe that while we want our neighbors to come into a relationship with the Lord, our goal of neighboring is to love them regardless of their reactions to any of our overtures. Reaching out to our neighbors is not just for the purpose of making a sale. It’s simply to love them. Period.

Relationships are at the heart of the gospel. Jesus explains that our ultimate motive, our primary purpose, is to love God and to love others (Matt. 22:36–40). Specifically, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. For sure, it doesn’t stop there, does it? Our goal is not to win “The Good Neighbor Award.” Our hope is that others come to know and love Jesus. But regardless of our neighbors’ response to us, the mandate of our Master is the same: Love them.

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So, perhaps before we invite our neighbors to the next church dinner, maybe we should invite them into our own homes for a meal. Before we invite our neighbor’s child to our church’s Christmas program, maybe we should go see their child in the school play. Before we tell them our faith story, we would be wise to listen well to their story.

In a recent sermon series on neighboring, I emphasized the implication of Acts 17:26–27:

“He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.”

Our Sovereign Lord places us where we live so that others might “feel their way toward him and find him.” Through purposeful, consistent and loving neighborly acts and attitudes, we earn the right to be heard.

And, as Pathak and Runyon write, loving our neighbors begins with simply learning their names. We can hardly pray for or love them when we cannot call them by name. To alter slightly the Chinese proverb, “A journey to a friendship begins with learning the first name.”

In response to this emphasis on neighboring, several families in our church made a concerted effort to put these ideas into practice. One family delivered invitations to all of their neighbors for a night of gathering. Not knowing if few or any might respond, they are so glad that they planned for many.

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In fact, 61 neighbors came who expressed thanks for this first gathering. Children drew chalk drawings. Adults told stories. All enjoyed a simple meal while forging friendships with their neighbors. The ripple effects of this simple overture continue to be felt.

May we forge caring and committed relationships with our neighbors and rest in the confidence that the Lord is doing a good thing right where we live for his glorious purpose.